We don’t do enough commentary here on the writings of Rod Dreher, who’s a Louisiana treasure tucked away in St. Francisville and scribbling away at The American Conservative, and for that we should apologize. A lot of what’s written at that site is less insightful than it should be, but that isn’t true of Dreher’s social commentary – which comes from a devout Orthodox Christian perspective and comes from an unapologetic traditional Southern perspective.
As we said, Dreher is a treasure. But this isn’t actually from Dreher. It’s from one of his readers, who sent in a testimony of sorts of a live which has hit a hard dead end like very many people in a society increasingly devoid of personal meaning and frighteningly disconnected among people with more means of communication than ever before.
We’re just going to rip off the whole thing and then offer some commentary on it below.
The things you have been writing lately about alienated young men and mass shootings prompt me to reach out to you. I am not a young man anymore, but I am dealing with things that I did not imagine I would be when I was young and newly married. Back then, everything made sense. I feel like I need to tell my story.
My background is that I am a successful businessman (a kind of consultant) living in a well-to-do suburb of a Southern city. My wife and I married relatively early, and had two kids. The boys are in good colleges in other states. They are getting ready to head back to school next week. It has been a real pleasure having them here this summer. Our house becomes a tomb when they are not around.
Four years ago, my wife told me that she didn’t want to be married to me anymore. After almost 30 years, she had had enough. I did not see that coming. We almost never fought. We used to go to dinner together, take family vacations, do things together, etc etc. She just said that she thought she had hitched herself to a man too young, and now that the boys were older and out of the house, she was reconsidering her life. I asked her if there was another man. She said no, and eventually I believed her. I asked her if she wanted a divorce. She said probably so, but she wanted to wait until the boys got out of school. She is a reasonable person with a finance background, and knows that a divorce would cost us a lot at a time when we are supporting two kids in college.
She has a job she loves. I work from a home office. I was so glad when my company gave me the chance to do this. I miss the friendships in the office, but when you talk on your blog about wokeness in the workplace, I always find myself nodding along. A few years back, my company started getting engaged with “diversity and inclusivity” in the workplace. I noticed that every time they would run us all through one of those seminars, we would all come out of it more suspicious of each other. It was crazy. It was as if our bosses were trying to poison the office environment. I got to the point where as a white male, I saw my co-workers as potentially the people who would try to get me fired if I said one wrong thing by mistake. They might have seen me that way too. It was crazy. The more management pushed “diversity and inclusivity,” the more anxious things felt in the office. When the company was restructuring and offered people in my division the chance to work at home, I jumped at it, just to get out of that tense environment.
It was a blessing at first, but nowadays I wonder if that was the right thing to do. The idea of working from home seems great, until you realize that you don’t see people at all. I have a nice home office where I put in my 9 to 5, which is really more like 8 to 7, but everybody does that. If I’m being truthful, I stay in my office longer than I have to on most days, because there is nothing for me outside of it. My wife used to be my best friend. Now we just share a house and a bed. She has friends from her office, and goes out with them a lot. When all this started, I honestly thought she was seeing some guy. I’m not going into the details, but I’m truly convinced that she’s not. She’s just hanging out with other middle-aged women who are sick of their husbands too.
I used to think only men behaved like that. Mother and Daddy have both passed away, but they had a good marriage. Some of their friends got divorced when I was a kid, and it was always the man leaving his wife for a younger woman. They were very judgmental of them, but in a way I still think was right. They were Southern people (I think you know what I mean, Mr. Dreher), and that meant that they thought it was dishonorable for a man to do his wife like that. I internalized that honor code, and have always lived by it, and my Catholic faith. If my wife demands a divorce, I will give it to her, but I won’t marry again. How could I go through an annulment? I can’t say truthfully that this was not really a marriage. I meant it when I said my vows, and I believe my wife did too. I am not going to make bastards of my sons because my wife abandoned me and I want to be married again. Besides, there would be no marrying again for me anyway. I look at myself in the mirror — mid to late 50s, half-bald, pot belly, etc etc. What woman would want me even if I was free to marry her?
I was an only child, so I have no close family to speak of. We are Catholics. My faith is just about the only thing that keeps me going through all this, but it’s thin. My wife refuses to see a marriage counselor. I made the first steps to getting an appointment to talk to our priest, but I gave up because that was hopeless. I feel bad for our priest. He’s managing a big suburban parish all on his own. It would have taken forever to get an appointment, and there was no way he was going to be able to give us the time it would take to save our marriage, especially given that my wife doesn’t want to save it. Besides, there is nothing I’ve ever heard our priest say that tells me he is a man who could help us. He talks like one of those life coaches our company used to bring in for team building exercises, a guy who gets all his ideas from Hallmark cards.
She still goes to mass with me, but just out of habit. When I stand there listening to Fr give his cheerful but empty homilies, I think about what’s keeping me from going home and blowing my brains out. I’m not going to do this because I’m scared of pain and I’m scared of going to Hell. Also, I don’t want to hurt the boys, and make them feel like they did something to cause it or give them something to be ashamed of. However, I think a lot about how little I have to live for anymore. I am not even sure that the boys think of me much, except as “Good Old Dad”…
Nobody can see it. I stand there in church, wearing my coat and tie, and people probably think I have it all together. We drive nice cars, we live in a nice house in a good neighborhood, etc, etc. I am grateful to have a good job that has allowed me to provide for my family. By all the world’s standards, I’m doing well. I have “white privilege.”
What a joke. When I first started working in my home office, I would dress up in a coat, no tie, and dress pants to go to “work.” It felt right to hang on to that habit. Since my marriage fell apart, I notice that some days I don’t even get out of my pajamas. I sit there at my nice desk doing all my work on my laptop, and go right back to bed at the end of the day without even taking a shower. I know this is pathetic, and if the boys were still at home, I would know to keep up appearances. This is my life.
When the boys graduate and don’t have to depend on us, I guess that will mean Decision Time. I will probably move out, though to all rights we ought to sell the house. I remember the day we bought it, and talking with my wife about that big dining room, and how we looked forward to the kids coming home with their wives and children for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oh, we sure had big plans for that dining room. We bought a house with a fireplace because we dreamed about sitting around it with the grandchildren. All that is over now, and not because I wanted it to be. I feel so powerless. Maybe I would stay here if either one of the boys moved back, but given the fields they have chosen, I don’t look for that to happen, and even if it did, we would just be keeping up appearances for their sake. Southern people are real good at that, as you know.
What prompted me to write to you is your writings about the loneliness crisis. I am not some white trash 22 y.o. living in a trailer somewhere, playing video games, and living off his Mama, but I am completely isolated in my life. My “video game” is Excel spreadsheets. The friends I had back in the happier days were all “couples friends” through my wife. When she said she didn’t want to be married to me, we stopped having people over, and stopped accepting invitations to other people’s houses. After a few years, those invitations stopped coming. I tried to keep up these friendships with the husbands, but it was awkward. I told a couple of the guys I was closest to about the mess in my marriage, and they seemed sympathetic, but there wasn’t a lot they could do. They all had kids, and their couples friends. Two or three times I went to their dinner parties by myself, but you talk about awkward! I was embarrassed by it all, and just quit going. I miss those guys, and I even miss their wives. We used to be happy all together.
If this is “white privilege,” screw it. I stopped by the shoe repair shop a couple of weeks ago, and there were some black guys my age sitting around talking and laughing with each other. I envied them. I probably make 10 or 15 times more than them, but they are probably rich in ways that I used to be before I went “bankrupt.” I would trade all this so-called “white privilege” for a happy marriage, a strong family, and good friends. Mother and Daddy didn’t have a lot of money, but at least they had that. They also had a small-town church where they felt at home. How can anybody feel at home in a big parish like mine? I was taught to be charitable, especially to the clergy, and I do feel bad for our priest, who is carrying a heavy load. But this ain’t church. I’ve gotten to the point where I sit there during mass and I wonder how many of those men in the pews are just like me: barely holding it together, wondering what the hell we’re living for, ignored by our wives, and starving for friendship. God feels so far away. I have never doubted His existence, but these days, He feels like the Pope — a nice man who lives far away and who doesn’t see us.
I know I sound like I’m feeling sorry for myself. I guess I am. But damn it, I didn’t think things were going to work out like this. I did everything I was supposed to do, and it all fell to pieces anyway. I’m racking my brains trying to figure out how I can fix this, but my wife doesn’t want it to be fixed. She just wants out. I recognize that I am privileged economically and socially, but I’m here to tell you that if you were a working man who drove by my house, and saw me out front mowing our big lawn, you would think I had it made. In fact, you would be looking at a dead man, at a man who secretly hopes he falls over from a heart attack so he doesn’t have to keep carrying this weight of loneliness. At this point, my only purpose in life is to do what I have to do so my sons can have a good life or think they have a good life, until they get to my age and it falls to shit, and they end up doing just what their Good Old Dad is doing.
The thought just occurred to me as I’m writing this that the only real reason we will have to keep our household together after our sons graduate is if one of them can’t find a job, and has to live with us. That’s a sorry state to be in, knowing that the only thing that would keep you and your wife together is an unemployed grown-up child.
I appreciate the opportunity to get this off of my chest. I like reading your blog because even though it’s depressing sometimes, I feel like you talk about the real world, which is more than I get from my priest. I would just ask your readers to keep in mind that when they see people at church, in the store, and at other places, that those people might be suffering in ways that are not obvious. You think folks have it made, but they don’t. You see me getting out of my [luxury car brand] at church, with my wife, and we’re all dressed up and smiling, but from my very jaded perspective, we’re dead people who have no future. At least my wife has the girls from the office.
I’ve thought about asking my manager if I can come back to the office, but I know that’s not a solution. I’m the Great White Male, the source of all evil in the world. Given my run of luck, it would be about right for somebody to falsely accuse me of something, and end up taking away the last I have left from what started out as an American dream. I’d end up jobless and poor, and then the gun to the head might not seem so scary after all.
Sorry. Thanks for listening.
Dreher’s take, which is characteristically brilliant: “I wish Walker Percy was still alive to write this man’s story. Maybe he already did.”
This hit home with your author, a little. As someone in his late 40’s who hasn’t been married, my experience is much different than that of Dreher’s correspondent. I’m still of the mind that while my recent and current experiences with dating offer very little reason for faith in positive outcomes I’m sooner or later going to find somebody I like and will do the married-with-kids thing in relatively short order. Call that blind optimism, or confidence, whether misplaced or no. Either way, I’m an only child and a little bit of a loner – I’m more than functional if it ends up just being the dog and me for the time being.
That said, I see more and more stories like the one sent in to Dreher over the weekend, and more and more it appears we are a society in which people are thrown away socially. If you lack the skills to connect using the modern technology of social media, or if you aren’t willing to adjust your worldview and thinking to that which is in fashion on social or dating apps, or whatever, you are increasingly no longer relevant in the current age.
This is not a good development. It’s a scary one. It’s scary not because there is a particular danger Dreher’s correspondent is going to do something terrible like shoot up a shopping mall – quite the opposite: it’s because here is someone who appears far more “on the ball” than your typical disaffected losers, and yet he’s struggling to find meaning and connection in a life that looks like what we’re supposed to aspire to. It’s a bad sign to see people who’ve done everything we as a society believe will produce for us the happiness and fulfillment America promises and yet end up in this kind of despair.
American life expectancy has begun to drop, in large measure because of things like the opioid epidemic – which is a symptom of something else. Why are so many people checking out of the real world? Because they lack community. They’re stuck at home without meaningful connections, and glued to a TV the programs on which increasingly marginalize them in their own minds. When a size 10 model is “plus-sized,” when anyone over 35 is portrayed as over the hill, when straight white guys are always the devil, eventually you’re going to have a very large segment of the population ready to check out and disengage.
A friend of mine could have, with a few differences, easily been Dreher’s correspondent. He’s successful, in a meaningful job, and had a marriage which was outwardly productive with several children (though there were indications of trouble in the past). They’re all off to college and that union is finished, and my friend is now telling me he has no interest in finding anyone else. He’s done, and looking forward to his time as a grandfather.
This isn’t what we grew up with. It’s something new, and something less. We don’t have the families, and the emotional support they gave us, to fall back on that our parents and grandparents had.
And what takes the place of that? The obvious answer is people will demand that government does. Someone has to step in, after all, because people with no support systems are in danger at all times of ending up on Skid Row with just a few bad breaks going against them.
But we know that government doesn’t work in such cases. If we didn’t know that all we have to do is look at Los Angeles and San Francisco, where people who have had those bad breaks without the families and friends to help them get beyond them have ended up homeless, in rat-infested tent cities the Third World would cringe upon viewing. California is about as big-government a state as there is, and there is no aid for the homeless there; even if there were, government can’t provide the interpersonal connection most people crave in living a full life. Without that, direction – professionally, personally, emotionally, morally – is very difficult to maintain, and there is an immense risk of falling away.
It’s no good to have a society where people in their 50’s, who by all rights should live to their 80’s, no longer see a positive future. Dreher’s correspondent is someone in crisis, and he isn’t alone.
We should all reach out to those we know facing such circumstances and help them to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives. There is so much wealth and beauty around us – but so often we fail to see it without friends and family to share it with. None of us should be denied that.
And none of us should believe the government can fill this void.